In weaving together the stories of about a dozen middle-class Southern Californians, writer/director Don Roos' Sundance-certified Happy Endings fits into what is now a common indie sub-genre: poor man's Robert Altman - specifically, that worshipped director's early-1990s character tapestry Short Cuts. Others have taken the same setup further: Paul Thomas Anderson gave it more cinematic juice and operatic ambition in Magnolia, Todd Solondz more polemical power in the misanthropic Happiness. But Happy Endings seems almost like an archetypal example of the familiar limitations of recent American indies: humdrum visuals, mildly witty script, and standard-issue cast of indie regulars (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Steve Coogan), retreating one-time stars (Laura Dern, Lisa Kudrow), and inexplicables (Tom Arnold). Though with every character actually or potentially hiding something ("You don't know me. Nobody knows me," one character laments), Roos might just as well have borrowed his title from a different '90s art-house hit, Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies.
A Hollywood screenwriter (Single White Female, the 1996 remake of Diabolique) before reintroducing himself as indie auteur as the writer/director of 1998's wacky and overpraised The Opposite of Sex, Roos is far from the worst filmmaker in Sundance land, but his two so-called indies still exhibit the flaws inherent in his own background and the Hollywood co-option of indiedom: Roos' films seem more written than directed (both films deploy narration) and - like too many other films in that corner of the cinematic world - have a TV-movie sensibility in their lack of visual ambition or imagination.
The plot of Happy Endings revolves around step-siblings Mamie (Kudrow) and Charley (Coogan), whose one-time teen sexual encounter led to pregnancy, separation, and an abortion - or did it? Set 17 years after the pair's initial family scandal, they're now seemingly well-adjusted adults who don't talk about the past. They form the nucleus around which Roos juggles the rest of his cast. But the overdetermined interconnections in Happy Endings don't have nearly the intricacy or structural satisfaction of Short Cuts. And these faults are only underscored by smarmy on-screen narration meant to sharpen the characters' backstories but which more often just shape audience reactions that should be left free to develop independently.
As is typical with these kinds of plot structures, some characters grab you and some don't. I was most interested in the relationship between Jude (Gyllenhaal), a manipulative singer who joins a rock band subsidized by Frank (Arnold), the rich father of the band's drummer. When the opportunistic Jude lays eyes on Frank, the moment evokes Barbara Stanwyck's classic line from The Lady Eve: She needs him like the ax needs the turkey. But a relationship that at first seems like mere May-December expediency is turned into something more - the lone human heartbeat in this otherwise by-the-numbers indie.
A Sundance-launched documentary, Murderball explores a sport - wheelchair rugby - where quadriplegics face off in a contest that's a mix of basketball and bumper cars, careening across hoops hardwoods in specially designed, battered metallic chariots that look like something out of Road Warrior. The sport is brutal (murderball is what the players affectionately call it), but you won't see anyone wearing a helmet or any other protective gear. "What am I going to do?" one wiseguy combatant asks. "Break my neck?"
Murderball, directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, is infused with exactly the lack of sentimentality that quote suggests. The film is rooted in a piece Shapiro penned for Maxim magazine. And if that beacon of journalism doesn't sound like a promising source for a documentary, it's probably helpful here. There's no liberal piety in Murderball, no struggle to tug at heartstrings. Instead, it's a pretty conventional sports doc: It has rivalries, big games, triumphs, bitter defeats, physical excitement (placing the camera at wheel level for an up-close look at the speed and impact of the collisions), and macho bluster.
The plot pivots on a rivalry between the U.S. national team, led by muscular, bald, tattooed standout Mark Zupan, and the Canadian team coached by a bitter, curmudgeonly former U.S. star, Joe Soares, who fled north to seek revenge after being cut from the U.S. team. The teams face off at the 2002 world championships and again at the 2004 Paralympics in a bid for murderball supremacy, giving the film the familiar - and satisfying - rhythms of any other sports film.
But even though Murderball is more a film about a compelling athletic subculture than a film about disability, there is also much interest in life off the court. There's a frank, almost frat-boy approach to sexuality (Zupan says that quadriplegics really like to, um, please the ladies orally), and Murderball is very straightforward about the mechanics of these men's sex lives (including footage from an instructional video on that topic: Sexuality Reborn).
The players also bemoan perceptions of their disabilities. The aggressive Zupan talks about getting in arguments with people who say, "I can't hit a guy in a wheelchair" and responds, "Why not? Hit me. I'll hit you back." One of Zupan's teammates complains about people who'll greet him with small talk, like "It's good to see you out!"
"'Good to see you out?' Where am I supposed to be, in a closet?" he asks.
The players in Murderball are guys who have made peace with their physical limitations and forged ahead. But the film does give viewers a feel for the physical and psychological process it takes to get there in the form of Keith Cavill, a young former motorcross pro going through the early stages of post-accident rehab.
Cavill, a former daredevil, talks of being reduced to infancy, relearning basic physical skills like rolling over. At the end of his hospital stay he returns to a family home now retrofitted for his new, wheelchair-bound existence. His family forces a chipper, excited mood while showing Cavill all the new gadgets designed to make his life easier. But Cavill surveys the scene with a deadpan honesty that suggests he'd make a pretty good teammate for Zupan one day: "This really sucks."